August 1, 2018 – Senator Edward M. Kennedy died nine years ago this month. At the time I fantasized what it might have been like when Teddy crossed over. Would he have been greeted by his long-dead brothers? And what would the conversation have been like?
The fantasy unfolds:
Somewhere laughter erupted, as if someone had just told a joke.
It was raucous, frat house laughter, exploding loudly and then fading into Boston-accented commentaries on whatever the hell was so funny.
It was familiar laughter. Ted opened his eyes to see where it was coming from.
The mist in the room began to lift and Ted saw three shadowy figures. Two were over six feet tall and one was shorter, and their foreheads nearly touched as they leaned toward each other. One of them – Ted wasn’t sure which – was about to tell another joke.
“Huh,” Ted said.
The three straightened and turned to face him. “Huh, yourself,” said Jack, flashing his teeth. Joe and Bobby smiled, too. Ted blinked his eyes and stared at the three grinners.
“Where – what -?” Ted said. “Am I -?”
“What’s wrong, hot shot, don’t you read the Globe any more?” asked Joe, whose starched white Navy officer’s uniform glowed as if he was being transfigured.
“Kennedy Dead at 77,” said Bobby, reading from a paper that suddenly materialized in his hands.
“Liberal Lion of the Senate, symbol of family dynasty, succumbs to brain cancer,” Jack recited.
“Brain cancer,” Joe said. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”
Ted began to catch on.
“I knew when the priest came and they took away my ice cream that it was getting close,” he said. “Am I -?”
“A ‘malignant glioma’ for God’s sake,” said Jack. “Christ, you always did do things the hard way.”
“Us, we never saw it coming,” said Joe. “A bomber explodes …”
“A couple bullets in Dallas,” said Jack.
“A .22 round to the head in Los Angeles,” Bobby shrugged.
“Couldn’t have been easier, old man,” Joe said. “But a ‘malignant glioma’? Jesus.”
Ted looked around but he couldn’t see clearly through the thick mist.
“Is this heaven? Where’s Dad?”
The three older brothers exchanged glances. Jack shifted his weight at an invisible podium, as if it was a press conference and he was searching for a misleading answer.
“This isn’t heaven,” Bobby said. “More like the narthex.”
“And we haven’t seen Dad,” said Joe.
“Remember, we all predeceased him,” added Jack. “But if he came through here, we didn’t see him.”
“Mother is up ahead of us,”clarified Bobby. “And Eunice and Jackie and John Jr. – all of them.”
“But we haven’t seen Dad,” repeated Joe.
“We don’t know about Dad,” said Jack.
Ted stared at his brothers, and they stared back at him.
“You all -” Ted started. “You all look good.”
Bobby snorted impatiently, the way he did when he read convoluted Justice Department memos.
“Of course,” he said. “So do you.”
A shimmering mirror appeared in front of Ted. He did look good. The gut was gone, the jawline was firm, the hair was dark brown.
“Damn,” he said.
“It’s a fringe benefit,” said Joe, stepping along side Ted to share the mirror. Joe examined his teeth and smoothed his hair with his palm.
Ted turned away from the mirror and extended his hands toward his brothers. “So what’s next?” he asked. “Why are you here?”
Jack placed his hands in the side pockets of his sports jacket. “We are here,” he said – the familiar starchy he-ah – “to honor you.”
“Welcome me to the other side?”
“More than that,” said Bobby.
“We’re here to pay our respects,” Jack said. “Dad had big ideas for all us boys, and you transcended us all.”
“Yes, you. Joe was relieved of the burden early, but I was president and Bobby became a civil rights icon. But you went so much further.”
“So we’re here as your honor guard,” said Joe. “You were the greatest among us.”
Ted snorted. “Shit,” he said. “I could have used this respect when you were pummeling me in touch football.”
“You hadn’t earned it then,” said Bobby, frowning. “That was then,” said Joe. “This is now.”
“And, look, you weren’t perfect,” said Jack. “Chappaquiddick. Shit.”
Joe and Bobby shook their heads.
“No way you are Saint Teddy,” Jack said. “You’ll be reminded of that every day here in the Narthex. All four of us were horny bastards and we thought we were entitled.”
Joe stepped in front of Jack.
“Not me. I was Mom’s altar boy,” he said. “But Teddy, this is no canonization. It’s just us boys getting together to acknowledge who you are in the Kennedy firmament.”
“Firmament?” Ted asked
“Look,” Bobby said. And he began to sum it up in lawyerly fashion. “Because of you, this country has a fighting chance for universal health care,” Bobby said. “You were responsible for more legislation that became law than any of us: in civil rights, voting rights, education, labor justice, immigration reform. You pushed George W. Bush to implement ‘No Child Left Behind.'”
Jack added, “You pushed this country to oppose apartheid in South Africa. You pushed for peace in Northern Ireland. You forced the U.S. to stop sending arms to the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. You opposed this country’s entry into the Iraq War.” Jack looked down at his feet. “I wish you had pushed me a little harder to get out of Vietnam,” he said in a low whisper.
“But you were the man,” Joe said. “You may well be the Kennedy future generations will remember.”
“If they mention us at all,” Bobby said quietly, “Who knows? Maybe Joe and Jack and I will be remembered as Teddy’s brothers.”
Jack and Bobby and Joe exchanged dubious smirks.
“I can live with that,” Ted said.
The four were silent for a moment. Teddy cleared his throat. “What’s next?” he asked.
“Time to move on, old man,” Joe said.
“We’ll follow you,” said Jack. “Let’s go,” said Bobby. The three older brothers stepped aside and pointed the way to a shaft of light.
The older brothers shrugged.
“Okay,” said Ted. “Let’s go, then.”
“Any last minute instructions before we go?” asked Joe, a bit sardonically.
Ted scratched his head and smoothed his dark brown hair.
“Yes,” he said, stepping forward. “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives …”
Ted stepped in front of his brothers and began walking toward the light.
“And the dreams shall never die.”